This past weekend was the 29th annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. This is my third winter living in New England, but my first time attending the festival.
There are many things that differentiate between festivals: the venue, the talent, the quality of the sound reproduction, the additional offerings other than the main stage, instructional opportunities, the atmosphere or culture (especially regarding jamming), the attendance, and the cost.
Here’s a brief look at each of these elements.
The Joe Val Festival is held at the Sheraton hotel and convention center in Framingham, MA. Given the almost certainty of snow in New England in February, it’s a very good thing that the festival is held indoors, and the Sheraton is a great location for it. I live in Boston. Not near Boston, but in the city, only a few minutes drive from the airport, in fact. The Sheraton in Framingham is less than 30 minutes drive away and easy to find.
In addition to it’s location, the venue is perfect on the inside. The large banquet facility used for the main stage is large enough to accommodate quite a crowd, but not so large that you can’t see well from the back of the room.
Downstairs is host to the marketplace, the showcase stage, an instrument check room, and various rooms used for workshops and master classes.
Also worth a mention is the backstage area for the performers and VIPs. It was spacious, clean, the food was plentiful, and the bands had a nice room to get warmed up before taking the stage.
Unfortunately, the weather interfered with my attendance on the first two days of the festival, so I was only able to attend on Sunday. And the inclement weather did prevent a few acts from attending as roads were unsafe or flights were canceled. I have to say that the festival organizers handled these unforeseen events very smoothly.
Each day of the festival included a stellar line up of acts featuring some of the best talent in bluegrass music, from both the local/regional scene and the national bluegrass family. You can take a look at this year’s schedule to see for yourself some of the bands that were performing. An unlooked for delight was The Lonely Heartstring Band, a local band who were on the bill for Saturday morning, but stayed around to fill in on Sunday afternoon for a band that couldn’t make it.
The highlight of the festival for me was the 90 minute plus show from Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. With two brand new members in the band, they sounded well rehearsed, and the longer they played, the better they got. They didn’t want to stop when the time came, asking permission to do several more songs, and then earning an encore from the audience who couldn’t get enough.
Quality of the sound reproduction
I’m going to say two things here. First, you could hear everything you needed to hear, anywhere in the room. So in that regard, the sound reinforcement was doing its job. On the other hand, the tones were a bit thin and not to my liking. I doubt it diminished enjoyment for the majority of fans in attendance, but for those whose ears have been trained, there was room for improvement.
Additional offerings other than the main stage
As I’ve already mentioned, in addition to the main stage, the festival includes a showcase stage downstairs. This is a smaller room, but still large enough to host a decent number of listeners. This stage featured a great number of bands throughout the weekend, mostly local acts looking to build an audience. This was by no means a lesser venue for entertainment though. I spent some time listening to a group of young pickers who are already talented and will only become more so with opportunities like this.
Workshops and instructional opportunities
Here’s another area where this festival really shines. There are a load of workshops, master classes, and a kids academy. You would be hard pressed to find a festival offering more instructional opportunities than Joe Val. There were a total of 59 workshops scheduled with some of bluegrass’ top players. Again, the weather did play a role in preventing some of the instructors from making it, but that was beyond the control of the festival organizers and they did a wonderful job of finding substitutes who were highly skilled.
These workshops included classes for beginner and intermediate players on all the instruments, along with stylistic specific classes such as Doc Boggs-style Banjo, Old-Time Roots of Bluegrass Fiddle, and Monroe Style Mandolin. There were also workshops for subjects like jamming, vocal technique, indie band survival, and even songwriting.
Beyond the workshop level, there were also a number of master classes for more advanced learning, and fast track classes for rank beginners. And don’t forget the kids academy for the little pickers!
Overall, this is one of the strong points of the festival. There’s something here for everyone.
Atmosphere or culture (especially regarding jamming)
I didn’t stay overnight to experience the late night jamming, but I have been told it was quite good. From what I saw Sunday afternoon and evening, jamming is very welcome at Joe Val. There were jams taking place in the hotel lobby, and in little nooks and corners everywhere. There were jams for beginners where the chord changes were being called out, and there were some impressively talented and entertaining jams taking place. Next year I plan to be there for the full weekend and indulge myself in this part of the festival.
I have no word from the festival organizers concerning attendance, but there were a good number of people there. It felt busy and full, but it was relatively easy to find a seat near the front for the shows I wanted to catch on the main stage. So in that regard, I would say it was about perfect.
Also, as you would expect at a bluegrass event, the people I met, the staff, the performers, and the fans, were warm and friendly. Like I said, it’s a bluegrass festival!
If you consider the cost of seeing one of your favorite bands in almost any other genre, bluegrass festivals are always a great value. At Joe Val, you get to see three days full of entertainment, including some of the best bands in the business, for about $100. The prices vary depending on membership in the Boston Bluegrass Union, and student and youth rates (which are steeply discounted). Throw in all the workshops this festival offers and its a very affordable weekend of entertainment and instruction for the entire family.
Hotel costs are also right around $100 a night, in a nice hotel. Just be sure to book in advance as they sold out both the Sheraton and the nearby Residence Inn this year. Considering the weather here in New England in February, it’s best to be close!
Overall, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival proved to be a fantastic festival and I was only able to attend one day out of three this year. I look forward to taking the family and making a weekend of it in 2015, for the 30th anniversary celebration. I hope to see you there!